BY MARCUS MITCHELL
While the majority of teams in the MLB are spending the offseason looking for new roster additions, the Tampa Bay Rays are on the hunt for a new place to call home. In a 5-3 vote by the St. Petersburg City Council, the city gave the Rays permission to explore options for a new stadium in the Tampa Bay area.
Although their name may say Tampa Bay, the Rays have spent all of their 18 years in the MLB under the dome of Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg. But like any 18-year-old moving out for the first time, the Rays are eager to start a new chapter in their life. A new chapter that may turn downtown Tampa into one of the biggest sports hotspots in the nation.
Currently, the drive between the University of Tampa and Tropicana Field is a lengthy 30 minutes, not counting Tampa’s notorious game day traffic. But that could all become a thing of the past if the Rays decide to make a move away from St. Pete. A move that students like Rays fan and junior biology major Adrian Almonte is all for.
“Since my freshman year at UT, I’ve only been able to attend one game,” Almonte said. “If they were downtown I could fit a lot more games into my class schedule and watch my team from the stands and not my couch.”
While it’s too early to tell if a partnership could form similar to the “student rush” ticket deals that students get for Tampa Bay Lightning games, it’s only logical that UT students will become a more common presence at Rays games. And although there may be nothing formally in place, Student Productions member Alexis Teope could easily see more Rays games in store for UT students.
“If the Rays moved closer, I’m sure Student Productions would look into planning events for their games because it would be easier and cheaper,” Teope said. “Bussing 100 or more students across the bay isn’t cheap, so shorter rides would keep the cost down for the organization and students.”
For a team that has had the lowest attendance in the MLB for four of the past five years, the Rays organizations would appreciate the spike in numbers. But what sport management professor Michael Smucker deems as the “million-dollar question” is whether or not a move to downtown Tampa would be the best move for the Rays.
“When a team moves to a new location, usually the trend is a huge spike in attendance,” Smucker said. “The spike that comes in the first few years is significant, but there is a definite drop after the demand starts to wane. That being said, I don’t see their numbers in downtown Tampa ever being lower than what they are right now in St. Pete.”
Smucker predicts that a move to the Channelside or Ybor area would pay the greatest dividends for both the Rays organization and the community. A move to a stadium near the Tampa Bay Lightning could work out great, but a move to a fairground site similar to the Tampa Bay Bucs won’t help the area too much, in what Smucker defines as “economic impact.”
“The economic impact of the Rays in a developing area like channelside would bring in a lot more revenue to the city,” Smucker said. “If they move out to a location like the fairgrounds, then visitors are going to come, attend the game and then leave immediately. That’s not what anyone wants.”
But the rumor mill suggests that the Rays may be considering a move not just outside of Tampa, but outside of the United States. New MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has spoken eagerly about adding a franchise to Mexico City, and Montreal has been fighting for a franchise since the Montreal Expos became the Washington Nationals in 2005. On top of all this the Rays got cleared to play up to 10 “home” games on sites outside of Hillsborough and Pinellas county. It’s also much more likely that the Rays get a better deal from the cities of Mexico City or Montreal to build a stadium than the deal that’ll be put together in the coming year by the city of Tampa.
With the team not able to leave Tropicana Field until as early as 2018, the organization has a lot of time to find the right deal for themselves, regardless of what their fans wish. But if the Rays decide to leave the country, Almonte won’t be booking a plane ticket any time soon.
“If the Rays leave Tampa Bay then they’ll be leaving my support too,” Almonte said. “It won’t be the same team if they aren’t in the Bay. They belong here.”